New Jersey court says consider pet's special value in custody cases

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A New Jersey appeals court issued a precedent-setting decision when it ruled that a pet's "special subjective value" to its owner should be considered in custody cases.

The opinion, issued March 10, reverses a trial court's decision that pets are personal property lacking in the unique values typically associated with heirlooms, family treasures, and works of art that induce a strong sentimental attachment.

The three-judge panel ruled that financial compensation alone was not adequate for Doreen Houseman, whose former fiancé, Eric Dare, kept their Pug Dexter even though the couple had agreed that she would keep the dog if their relationship ever ended. Houseman filed suit in March 2007 against Dare shortly after he refused to return the dog when she returned from a vacation.

The trial judge had determined that despite the oral agreement, Dare could retain ownership of Dexter because he already had possession of the animal, but that Dare had to pay Houseman $1,500, the value of the Pug agreed on by the couple.

Explaining its reversal of the trial court decision, the appellate court stated that "specific performance" applies even though the lower court said it did not. Specific performance is a legal remedy requiring enforcement of a contract involving unique personal property that applies when monetary damages aren't sufficient to compensate the aggrieved party.

The panel determined that Dare was obligated to comply with his oral agreement that Houseman would get custody of Dexter. Moreover, the dog's special subjective value to Houseman was evident from her testimony and how quickly she sued to get the dog back. As a result, the appellate court sided with Houseman, and Dare was ordered to return Dexter to her.

"There is no reason for a court of equity to be more wary in resolving competing claims for possession of a pet based on one party's sincere affection for and attachment to it than in resolving competing claims based on one party's sincere sentiment for an inanimate object based upon a relationship with the donor," the panel explained.

Many veterinary organizations are leery of rulings that tinker with the legal status of animals. They worry veterinarians will be exposed to increased liability from aggrieved pet owners if courts put an economic value on the human-animal bond. Rick Alampi, executive director of the New Jersey VMA, said the appellate court ruling is a slight departure from recognized animal law, but veterinarians in his state shouldn't worry.

"We did not view this as the sky is falling," Alampi said.

The good news, Alampi continued, is the court did not set a noneconomic value to the pet, meaning the judges did not fix a price tag on the bond between Houseman and the dog. "You can argue a slippery slope here, but on the surface, the judges' ruling stopped right at the point of saying, 'Yes, this is a special kind of property, it has a unique value,'" he explained.

Veterinary organizations also welcomed the court's rejection of a best-interests-of-the-pet standard as urged by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Lawyers in Defense of Animals. The best interests doctrine is typically used by family courts to determine what's best for children whose parents are separating or divorcing.

Adrian Hochstadt, assistant director of state legislative and regulatory affairs at the AVMA, said, "It's important to note that while the court recognized that pets are a unique form of property, it did not reject the settled legal doctrine that animals are considered a type of legal property. In fact, the court expressly rejected a guardianship-type standard such as 'best interest of the pet' to resolve ownership disputes."